What is it and how do I get rid of it?
Reactivity is a broad term used by dog trainers to describe an over aroused reaction to unfamiliar people, dogs and/or things in the dog’s environment. If you think about it, dogs are reacting to their environment all the time, so really everything is reactivity. But in this case we are talking about a particular picture that looks like …lunging, barking, snapping, growling and threatening someone or something in the dog’s environment, usually when the dog is on the end of a leash or restrained in some way.
In all cases, reactivity is a dog’s emotional response to something in his/her environment. The two most common emotions behind aggression in dogs is fear (safe or dangerous?) and/or guarding of resources (this person is mine and I’ve got back-up). Dogs can also become frustrated due to over-arousal just by seeing another dog. Perhaps they have been allowed to run up to other dogs in the past. When they are restrained from doing so, they can become very frustrated.
Dogs are hardwired to constantly assess their immediate environment. Is it safe…or is it dangerous? If it is familiar, it is safe and if it is not familiar …it may be dangerous. Dogs are animals of “flight or fight”. When confronted with a possible threat, dogs will instinctively run away, to gain distance, to assess the threat. They will only choose conflict if they are forced to. If a dog is on a leash, they do not have the option to gain distance (option one). So, they choose conflict (option two).
The importance of early socialization, and continued socialization over the dog’s lifetime, cannot be stressed enough. Exposing young dogs to unfamiliar things early builds in a resilience that helps them to navigate the world later in life.
There are many, many pet dogs in the world today and most of them live very restricted lives because they have to. Dogs no longer have the autonomy that they had years ago when they could learn about the world on their own. They are totally dependent on us to teach them what is safe and what is dangerous.
Let’s take the example of the dog who starts barking and lunging immediately upon sight of another dog when on a leash, out for a walk.
What is the dog doing? What is the purpose? The first part we covered previously, the dog is on a leash and retreat is not an option. What is the alternative? The dog blows themselves up to be as ferocious and threatening as they can to keep the other dog away. And, their most valuable resource, you, is at the other end of the leash (back-up).
At this point the dog is functioning off the “old” part of his brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for survival. Many people report that their dog does not listen or respond to them when they are in a reactive state. The reason for this is that they can’t! For the dog to respond to you they would have to be working off of their “new brain” or their frontal cortex. Physically, the two parts of the brain cannot be used at the same time. It’s one or the other.
Fear and or anxiety trigger a chemical response in the dog’s body, flooding the brain with cortisol and adrenaline. It can take quite awhile for a dog to recover after one of these episodes because of the effect of these chemicals. Think about suddenly experiencing something frightening or threatening. You can’t think! Right! Same thing in dogs.
Here is a human example that might make this more clear. Say you are driving in Boston traffic at rush hour (sigh). You are hyper aware of the situation you are in and trying hard to watch this car and that car, in attempt to survive and get to where you are going safely. What if, while you are driving someone said to you, “Ok, just keep driving and work on your Phd dissertation at the same time.” You could not do it. You would have to pull over, stop everything take many deep breathes and wait until you could focus your brain. This is kind of what happens to dogs when they are in a reactive state. They literally can’t think!
Most reactive behavior in dogs is modified by DRA or Differential Replacement of an Alternate Behavior! Got that? Essentially we reward the dog for simply looking at the scary stimulus. Looking is a behavior that we can reward. This simple behavior of looking at the stimulus becomes paired with the reward which actually begins to change how the dog feels. If we can change the emotion, we can change the behavior.
There are multiple effective protocols that can be used to change reactive behavior. Which technique is used depends upon its effectiveness for a particular dog. All dogs are different.
Whenever possible, I like to put a solid foundation of training under a reactive dog before beginning behavior modification work. In my experience, this predicts a better outcome over the long run.
We want dogs to stop reacting to the world and to start thinking. Dogs who have a history of training are more confident over all and their handlers have a deeper set of skills to draw from.